UT System Asks to Withhold Records From Lawmakers

UT Board of Regents Chairman Gene Powell asks the Board to support Chancellor Dr. Franciso Cigarroa at their Austin meeting on May 12, 2011.
UT Board of Regents Chairman Gene Powell asks the Board to support Chancellor Dr. Franciso Cigarroa at their Austin meeting on May 12, 2011.

Updated 9:30 p.m.: In a statement, state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, said she recently heard University of Texas System board chairman Gene Powell likened to a major political figure: "President Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal."

The comment was made, she said, in light of Powell's request to Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott for an opinion on whether the UT System can withhold documents from lawmakers — like Zaffirini — who have filed expansive records requests.

"My only conclusion is that they have something to hide," Zaffirini said.

She was not the only lawmaker to express disapproval. On Twitter, Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, called Powell's request a "frivolous effort to avoid disclosure" and said it was "wrong."

Powell indicated that turning over certain documents to legislators, who typically enjoy privileged access to confidential materials, may "intrude and unduly interfere" with certain board activities.

 

"Perhaps they do not understand the difference between 'inconvenient' and 'confidential,'" Zaffirini said.

She also added, "I cannot help but note the irony of Chair Powell’s complaints, given the sweeping demands for information demanded by some regents from [University of Texas at Austin] personnel."

Original Story: The University of Texas System has, by its own count, received four expansive records requests from state lawmakers, who typically enjoy privileged access to confidential documents. But system leaders aren't sure they want to turn all the information over.

On Friday, UT Board of Regents Chairman Gene Powell sent Attorney General Greg Abbott a request for an opinion on whether the system might be able to withhold some information from legislators.

"Specifically," Powell wrote, "we believe that such circumstances may exist when the disclosure of the requested information may affect the ability of the governmental body to conduct an investigation within its purview."

The system is in the early stages of beginning an investigation of the University of Texas at Austin School of Law's relationship with an independently run foundation that supplements its activities. The planned investigation has been poorly received by many lawmakers who have called it unnecessary.

Displeasure and uncertainty regarding the activities of the regents have prompted comprehensive open records requests from multiple lawmakers.

Powell also expressed concerns that turning over certain documents "may impede or cause the abrogation or loss of the attorney-client privilege of the governmental body, or may intrude and unduly interfere upon the power of a governing board of any agency within the executive branch established by the Texas Constitution to conduct its activities and fulfill its legal mandates and responsibilities."

 

Additionally, Powell inquired about the timeline for responding to legislative requests.

In a statement about the request, Powell said, "In an abundance of caution, I believe it is appropriate to ask the state’s top attorney to consider the situation and ensure the rights of both parties — the Legislature and the Board of Regents — are not violated."

Under the state's public record laws, public information requests, to which disclosure of confidential materials are not required, must be answered within 10 days. However, there is no such time limit in the statute pertaining to legislative requests.

Citing a "lack of responsiveness" from the system with regard to her recent legislative requests, state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, recently made an identical request as a public citizen.

It could prove an interesting move; her request as a public citizen is on a 10-day clock, and her legislative status could allow her to follow up and access the confidential documents withheld from her request as a public citizen.

Of course, that could change depending on Abbott's response to Powell's inquiry, which is below.

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